Safe but afraid
I am grateful that we are some of the safest people who have ever lived. Some of us live with the kind of comfort, prosperity, and longevity that people across history and geography couldn’t have even been able to dream about. Yet, we are also arguably the most fearful, anxiety-driven people who have ever lived. Could it be that we are the safest and the most scared all at the same time–both safe and afraid simultaneously? Michael Reeves writes: “Protected like never before, we are skittish and panicky like never before.”
Much has been written on this, and we could point to all kinds of culprits for our chronic low-grade terror. Some have argued that we now simply live with too much information. We receive a constant barrage of bad news, delivered to us almost instantly, 24 hours a day. It reminds me of what the Teacher says in Ecclesiastes 1:18: “…he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” I certainly feel that, and I sometimes wonder if part of my fear is that I simply know too much. You and I were never designed to know all the bad things all the time everywhere. I’m sure this contributes to my fear.
Others have made the case that it’s the comfort, ease, and prosperity for many of us that have increased our fears. The more you have, the more you fear to lose, and the more comfortable you are, the softer you may become. This also feels incredibly plausible and rather personal. I’m sure this contributes to my fear, and again, much has been written on both subjects.
Fear God or fear everything else
A third major contributor that I hadn’t considered, recently captured my attention. Could it be that we now fear everything because we no longer fear God? And could a proper fear of God actually be the prescribed antidote for our nagging fears of everything else?
I first began to consider this while reading a brilliant little book, Rejoice and Tremble: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord by Michael Reeves. Consider this blog as simply my best effort to get you to read this book.
He writes: “With society having lost God as the proper object of healthy fear, our culture is necessarily becoming ever more neurotic, ever more anxious about the unknown–indeed, ever more anxious about anything and everything. Without a kind and fatherly God’s providential care, we are left utterly uncertain about the shifting sands of both morality and reality. In ousting God from our culture, other concerns–from personal health to the health of the planet–have assumed a divine ultimacy in our minds. Good things have become cruel and pitiless idols. And thus we feel helplessly fragile. No longer anchored, society fills with free-floating anxieties.”
When I read those words, I thought: that doesn’t just sound like us, that sounds like me. Even as Christians, if we’re honest, we often struggle to believe that God is real, and even more so to believe that He is actively engaged in our lives and in our world. We don’t typically trust Him to know and do what is best, and because we no longer fear Him, we fear everything else.
At the same time, I think many of us find great reservation with the idea that we should “fear God.” We either dismiss it as an outdated bit of theology or we try to water down the word “fear” until it means almost nothing at all. Yet, the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, speak regularly of the joy of fearing God.
Most famously, Proverbs 9:10 declares: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” Essentially, you cannot be wise without it, and wisdom is part of what helps us discern between our fears. In Psalm 86:11, King David actually asks for fear. “Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name.” I’m not sure I’ve ever asked God to help me fear Him.
In Ecclesiastes, our entire duty to God and the summary of the good life is this: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:13-14).
Lest you think this is purely an Old Testament notion, remember what Mary sings when she discovers she’s pregnant with the Savior of the World, the One who frees us from all fear? “And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (Luke 1:50).
While there are many other examples, let me include just one more, from Jesus himself. Jesus makes the contrast between our typical fears and a proper fear of God when He says: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Essentially He says, God is the only thing we should fear. No one and nothing else can really hurt you. Yet somehow we’ve reversed the two. Instead of fearing Him we fear almost everything else.
What does it mean to fear God?
So if we want to overcome our chronic fears, we have to ask: what does it mean to fear God? Some have called it awe, which is close, but according to Reeves we should take it a bit further. We can be in awe of the amazing footwork of Patrick Mahomes but I wouldn’t exactly say that I fear him. Fearing God is more than just awe.
I think of it a bit like this. A few years ago our family hiked Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, called by Outside Magazine one of the top 20 most dangerous hikes in the world. We did it with our then 10 and 12-year-olds. You have to hike up this crazy ridge, at some points only 3 feet wide, with a 1000 foot drop off on one side and 800 feet on the other. We did this with our children! Take a moment to google “angel’s landing” and get a glimpse of what I’m talking about.
We were terrified. We were also overwhelmed with the spectacular beauty of the place. We were filled with intense joy at having to work together. We knew this was not something to be trifled with, but we also knew that if we respected the boundaries, we would not just be ok. We would be filled with an incredible sense of wonder and sheer delight.
This is, I think, a little bit of what it means to fear the Lord. With God, however, He is also both loving and holy, merciful and sovereign, tender and all-powerful. He isn’t just a beautiful and dangerous hike. He is a Person who loves us but also expects something of us.
This is why Reeves titled his book Rejoice and Tremble — the fear of God is both. He writes: “This right fear of God, then, is not the minor-key gloomy flip side to proper joy in God. There is no tension between this fear and joy… As our love for God is a trembling and wonder-filled love, so our joy in God is, at its purest, a trembling and wonder-filled–yes, fearful–joy. For the object of our joy is so overwhelmingly and fearfully wonderful. We are made to rejoice and tremble before God, to love and enjoy him with an intensity that is fitting for him. And what more benefits his infinite magnificent than an enjoyment of him that is more than our frail selves can bear, which overwhelms us and causes us to tremble?”
To fear God is to delight in Him, but in a way that gives Him His proper due as King of the universe. It’s to find our joy in Him, but to also recognize that He cannot be trifled with. It’s an acceptance of His sovereign rule, His definition of the good life, and His commands for living. It’s to believe deep down but with joy and relief that He knows better.
How does a right fear of God free us from our fears?
When you fear God like this, what else is there to fear? Yes, lots of things. Our world is a scary place! Yet when God grips our hearts even the scary things begin to lose some of their power, for we know that our good Father loves us and takes care of us. We know that when the scary things do happen, they don’t happen outside of His tender provision for us.
If we rejoice and tremble daily before God, fearing Him above all else, all the other fears begin to seem just a little less terrible. Let me quote Reeves one more time: “I want you to rejoice in this strange paradox that the gospel both frees us from fear and gives us fear. It frees us from our crippling fears, giving us instead a most delightful, happy, and wonderful fear.”
Embracing the better fear
So how do we embrace this better fear, learning to fear God instead of fearing everything else? First, always find ways to get to know God better. Who is this One we are to fear? We do this through His Word, through prayer, through others, by spending time at church, and time in His wonder-filled world with our eyes wide open. The more we know God for who He truly is (and not just how we imagine Him to be) the more we feel the commingling feelings of fear and joy.
Second, as we do that, compare Him to your fears and ask yourself: whom shall I fear? For example, I fear something bad happening to my children…but God loves them more than I do and He is sovereign over them. Fear the Lord.
I fear the messes in our world, the divisions, the polarization, the hatred…but God sees all and knows what is best for His people. Even though He never promises us a comfortable life, He does promise us life to the full. Fear the Lord.
I fear illness for me or for someone I love, and ultimately death…but nothing can touch me apart from my Father’s hand, and because of Jesus, even the grave no longer has any power over me. Fear the Lord.
No, none of this will fix it and none of it is easy. Our world is still scary and many of us will continue to carry our anxieties. But as we daily bring them to Him, over time He will help us put them in their proper place. For when we fear God we have nothing else left to fear.
I want to be a tree
“I want to be a tree.” I felt these words deep in my bones as I stood before the largest tree in the world. His name is General Sherman, located in Sequoia National Park in California. He is 2,200 years old (already a big tree when Jesus was born). He is 275 feet tall (the WW1 Memorial is 217 feet tall), 36.5 feet in diameter (that’s roughly 4 parking spaces across) and weighs 1,385 tons (that’s about 600 minivans). He is a big tree.
When I saw him, I thought, I want to be a tree. Now, of course I much prefer being a human, made in God’s image, and all that. But. If I could be anything else, I just might pick a tree. At the very least, I want to be the kind of tree talked about in Scripture.
Trees in the Bible
Jeremiah 17:7-8: Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.
I want to be that tree. So rooted in God and drawing on His unending resources that nothing can shake me. When life heats up or droughts last way too long, even then it has no fear and is not anxious. I want to be that tree!
If you are familiar with the Scriptures, you may have noticed how God loves trees. He talks about them all the time. They are in the first pages of our Bibles, the last pages, and even the climax of our story happens on a tree. Trees in Scripture are often a sign of God’s blessing and favor, and humans are encouraged to model our lives in some ways after them and are often compared to them (just a few examples: Psalm 1, Psalm 52:8, Isaiah 61:3, Jeremiah 17:7-8, Matthew 7:17-19).
So when I saw this tree it grabbed me. We actually spent the better part of three days in old growth sequoia groves, far below their towering canopies. We could see these magnificent trees flourishing in every direction. We touched them, smelled them, climbed on the fallen ones, stood inside hollow ones, picniced among them, drove our minivan through one of them, and hiked for miles below their stunning presence. These are the weird things the Millers do on vacation!
Lessons from a Tree
There are many things trees teach us. God’s Word explicitly uses trees as living illustrations and I want to mention three things that make me want to be like a mighty sequoia.
First, trees take the long view. Every time I plant a tree I feel like it is an act of faith, looking ahead into a distant future. I plant knowing full-well that the greatest size and beauty of this tree could likely be long after I am gone. Planting a tree is always for the people who outlive us. Trees take the long view and they encourage us to do the same.
I have never once looked at a tree and thought, boy, that thing is sure in a hurry. I have never seen one appear to be concerned about the moment or focused solely on the present. Instead, trees give me a sense of history and stability. It has been there a long time and will probably be there a longer time still. Trees are patient.
When I look at my life, I’m almost always in a hurry and obsessed with right now. It is easy in a year filled with as much turmoil as 2020 to imagine that things have never been more challenging or more divisive or disappointing. I’ve caught myself thinking things like: never before has our nation been so divided. Never has a virus had so much influence. Never has being a pastor (or parent, or teacher, or business leader, or medical professional—fill in the blank) been more exhausting.
Then I look at this tree. How many revolutions, civil wars, and contentious elections has it seen? How many nations rise and fall? How many viruses and diseases, economic downturns, and unanticipated situations? How many pastors come and go and how many apparent setbacks or divisions within the broader church?
Oh right. I’m probably not the first human to feel any of these things.
Of course, none of this minimizes the things we are feeling today. Our struggles are uniquely our own and as such, feel uniquely personal. Yet instead of looking at the last eight months, or the last four years, or even the 40+ years I’ve been alive, a tree reminds me that God also sees a bigger picture. And I need that bigger perspective.
Psalm 90:1–4: Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!” For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.
A tree has seen a lot.
God has seen it all.
Nothing surprises Him or catches Him off guard, and as such, I can, like a tree, wait patiently. I can trust in Him and rest in His provision. Trees encourage me to take the long view.
They also encourage me to suffer with purpose. I find this remarkable about sequoia trees; sequoias are quite literally built for suffering and come out better because of it.
I tend to worry about all the fires in California and everywhere out west. Even more, I worry about the fires in my own life and work and relationships. Not only are sequoias designed to withstand most forest fires, they actually need the fires in order to thrive.
Just look at this sequoia cone, no bigger than a small chicken egg, with tiny seeds embedded. And look behind at the dark spot at the base of the tree–a burned out hole big enough to camp in. (For you history and nature nerds, this is the same tree John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt camped under in 1903 when they “invented” the National Parks.)
Take a look at that burn mark. It seems impossible to me, yet in all the hiking we did, it was harder to find an old sequoia without burn marks than those with them. I knew the trees needed the fires, but I was surprised to see the majority of them deeply scarred by their environment, yet still massively mighty! How does that work?
You see, the bark of a mature sequoia can measure up to three feet thick (yes, you read that right—three feet) protecting it from almost any fire. It will leave tremendous scars but the tree stands protected. Not only that, the fires actually help the cones open up in order to release the seeds. Fire then burns off any competing plant undergrowth so the new seeds and saplings can flourish at the base of their towering parents. The fires and trees work together demonstrating some of the keys to the trees’ endurance: thick skin, ample pruning, and new growth.
If I am completely honest, 2020 has felt like one fire after another. I still feel the heat, and there is a good chance the burns many of us have experienced could turn into scars. Let’s not naively imagine it all rosy. There are things that, after this year, may never be the same. Not everything survives a forest fire.
I don’t want to be one of the casualties. I want to emerge stronger, with bolder faith, more resilient hope, and deeper compassion. Tender but thick-skinned. I want to see a church purified and pruned, longing for and working toward the Kingdom. I want to sprout new growth in my life, my family, my community, and our church to God’s great glory and our great joy. I want what Peter wrote to be true of us.
1 Peter 1:3–9: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
When I see a scarred sequoia it reminds me to suffer with purpose. I don’t have to enjoy it or pursue it, but I do have to let God use it. If you let Him, He will not waste the fires in your life.
And if you’re thinking, yeah, but how? You are not alone. I feel it right with you. Left to my own devices I tend to retreat back into my self-centered focus on the present and waste my suffering. But there is one more lesson from these mighty trees.
Sequoias stand tall together. They need one another and they almost seem to know it. In fact, I was puzzled when the ranger told us that while you may occasionally see a lone sequoia, it will almost certainly fail to flourish. It might survive. It might grow to a decent size and even live to a decent age. But it will never be a giant. It will never really be what it could be. For that to happen, these trees need a community.
You see, sequoias have remarkably shallow roots for their size. Again, imagine a tree that is 275 feet tall, weighing 1385 tons. Think about the foundation required for a building that size. Now picture that tree swaying and being whipped about in storm after storm after storm for 2,200 years. And it’s still standing.
Mature sequoia roots are only 12-14 feet deep. How do they possibly withstand every storm for thousands of years? The roots form a community. They spread out (each sequoia can spread out underground across an entire acre), twisting and turning and intertwining into an entire community of roots, holding each other strong. It can be a cluttered and tangled mess down there yet it allows them to flourish through nearly every storm.
When I am tempted toward despair or apathy, toward destructive distraction or unhealthy busyness, toward doubt or anger, it is the people standing with me who keep me standing.
Who are those trees in your life? How, even in the difficulty of today, are you pursuing those relationships? How are you helping each other stand tall?
Life and community and church all look very different right now. It is hard. Isolation creeps in. Old habits die. If we’re not careful, at some point we’re going to look around and realize that we are alone, and then, even the smaller storms will shake us. What will happen when the big one comes?
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12: Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
May our roots grow deeply entwined together, so that in this unusual community, we might stand tall and endure every storm.
Will we be this tree?
Will this be us—God’s church—in this world? Will we be this tree? Rooted in Him and never fearing. When the storms rage, when the fires come, when the immediate feels so pressing. When elections overwhelm us, when viruses disrupt us, when fears and disappointments and frustrations loom. Will we keep trusting? Will we learn from the trees?
Next time you feel the tensions rising up within you, look up at a tree. Sure, you may have trouble finding a sequoia nearby, and not all trees are the same, but any tree will do. Let it remind you anyway.
Take the long view.
Suffer with purpose.
Stand tall together.
And as you look up at the tree, may you also lift your eyes up to the God who promises to make you into the forest described by Isaiah 61:1-3.
For our God comes: …to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.
What follows is Part 4 of a four-part blog on why “nature” is a spiritual discipline. Whether you love nature, have always been passive to it, afraid of it, or you just consider yourself a bit indoorsy, I am convinced from Scripture and theology, a variety of research disciplines, and personal experience that your soul and your life would be healthier and happier with a little more time spent outdoors.
If you missed Parts 1-3, I highly recommend you start there, by clicking the link above. If you’re all caught up, let’s get practical!
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How do I get more nature in my life?
So what should we do about it? How do I get more nature in my life? I know some of you are wrestling with the same question I have agonized over for so long. I live in Kansas City! Do I just need to move some place more beautiful?
No, you don’t, for there is beauty everywhere for those who want to see it, and it really doesn’t take that much work to begin enjoying more of the natural world. Let me give four simple tips to help us get started.
1. Pay attention
First, you have to pay attention. This is so hard for me because, sadly, we tend to get bored with the beauty we see every day. We’re in such a hurry all the time, and we just don’t notice it anymore, yet there is something so valuable in the old phrase, “Stop and smell the roses.”
Pay attention! Look for the moon and stars. Notice the flowers. Feel a tree. Listen to the birds. I’ve never been much of a birder, but to help us be more aware, we bought a couple of bird feeders for our backyard. Now we can’t help but pay attention to the birds from time to time.
Miller Backyard, 2019
If I could move to the country, I certainly would, and if I could live in a forest, even better. That seems unlikely, so I’m slowly making a forest of my own. We have a normal-size suburban lot. We’ve lived there nine years, and I’ve planted nine trees. One day, we will live in a forest!
For the indoors, we bought a bunch of nearly indestructible house plants (we haven’t killed too many of them yet) and even organized our furniture to face the windows. As much as possible, we’re bringing the outdoors inside.
My “Pet” Coastal Redwood, 2019
I’ve also got one of those fancy watches, and on the face it tells me the time of sunrise and sunset. I added that feature because, if possible, I don’t want to miss it, even if it’s just a moment’s glance out the window. There are cell phone apps that will do the same.
Cheryl Strayed, in her book, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, a memoir of her own healing on an incredible journey into the wilderness, writes: “‘There’s always a sunrise and always a sunset and it’s up to you to choose to be there for it,’ said my mother. ‘Put yourself in the way of beauty.’”
Big Bend National Park, Texas, 2018
Now my list might not be your list. That’s not the point. These are just examples of easy things to help me daily pay attention. You need to find what works for you and be willing to do a little experimentation.
2. Chase it down
Watch for it, but also chase it down. Go find it.
A few years ago, I knew only a couple decent places to hike in the entire Kansas City area. With only a little work, we’ve now got five incredible places in our rotation within only 15 minutes of our house! Chances are, there are a few near you as well.
Here’s my list of great places to go hiking or play outside. If you live nearby or are willing to drive, I would love to share them with you. As you keep reading, I’ve got a few other favorites in the broader Kansas City area, but this is not at all exhaustive. You have to find them where you live, and the closer they are to home, the more likely you are to create habits around them.
Our current favorite is Lexington Lake right off K-10 in De Soto, KS. This is a new park, and they’re still blazing the trails, which adds to the fun. I highly recommend you get off the paved trail and into the woods for some real quiet and beauty.
Lexington Lake Park, De Soto, KS, 2018
Kill Creek Park, also out west, is huge, and sees way fewer visitors than Shawnee Mission Park. It’s incredible. We do like Shawnee Mission Park, especially if you start off Ogg Road to beat the crowds and hit the woods. Just west of Lake Olathe, Prairie Center (NOT Prairie Center Park) is perhaps where we go most frequently, combining trails in the woods as well as the Kansas prairie. To enjoy it to the fullest, bring waterproof shoes. Closest to home we visit Ernie Miller Park & Nature Center.
When we are willing to drive a little farther, we love Parkville Nature Sanctuary, just north of the river or the Overland Park Arboretum down south, just off Highway 69. Swope Park and Longview Lake also have trails. With a little more free time, any of the Kansas or Missouri State Parks are terrific (Weston Bend is one of our favorites and surprisingly close). With these, you can also go camping, another favorite Miller activity.
For a bigger adventure (and a longer drive), we love Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Emporia. It’s part of the National Park Service and has a great visitor center, old farmstead, and miles of trails. You can hike in the Kansas Flint Hills prairie with hundreds of bison or along the water with beautiful trees. It’s not Yellowstone, but it is well worth the drive.
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Kansas, 2017
If you want help finding more trails near you, All Trails is a very helpful website and app. You might also check out the Hiking Project. As you discover new places or have some special ones of your own, would you share them with me as well?
Even if you struggle to find the right places, or if hiking just isn’t for you, studies have shown that going for a walk in the city will still give you some of the health and happiness benefits if you choose the sidewalk nearest the most trees. Crazy, right?
At the very least, find a local park or green space. Maybe it’s just a picnic, or a place for a hammock, or a place to let the kids run free. Kansas City has many great options. Chase it down. There are more opportunities close to you than you realize.
Miller Backyard, 2018
3. Find your rhythm
Once you know your options, find your rhythm and create new habits. You have to commit to actually doing this, even when you don’t feel like it. Sometimes it’s like eating your vegetables, and I call it a spiritual discipline for a reason. It takes discipline.
Studies have shown that we tend to underestimate the rewards of going outside and overestimate the rewards of staying in. According to Williams, “We don’t experience natural environments enough to realize how restored they can make us feel…”
For example, it takes work to go on a hike, and when you’re at home with a free minute, we rarely feel motivated to do it, so perhaps we’ll turn on the TV. But the studies also show that when it comes to happiness and true relaxation, doing the harder work of going outside is so much more likely to deliver what you’re looking for.
What that means is you are almost never going to feel like it. Yet you will almost always be thankful you did. So discipline yourself for greater joy.
But I don’t have time! I love how Richard Louv responds to this. “Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health (and also, by the way, in our own)… By taking nature experience out of the leisure column and placing it in the health column, we are more likely to take our children on that hike—more likely to, well, have fun.” (Last Child in the Woods)
The Nature Fix recommends carving out a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly rhythm. “For warding off depression, let’s go with the Finnish recommendation of five hours a month in nature, minimum. But as the poets, neuroscientists and river runners have shown us, we also at times need longer, deeper immersions into wild spaces to recover from severe distress, to imagine our futures and to be our best civilized selves.”
So for me, every day I try to notice the natural beauty around me. At least once a week (rain or shine, hot or cold), I try to get out in the woods, or at least out in the country, often for a hike or bike ride. Monthly we try to go on at least two family hikes and/or enjoy some good time at a park.
Yearly, we try to carve out different pockets of time. Sometimes it’ll be a weekend camping trip with friends or family, a visit to the zoo (have you been to the Omaha zoo!?), or a day-trip to one of the farther parks or preserves.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2018
We also work really hard to make an annual pilgrimage to visit some of our National Parks. I know camping isn’t for everyone, but many of these places have lodges, or at least hotels nearby. We love a good road trip (and saving money) and, because it’s been part of our family rhythm, getting in the car and heading to some of the most beautiful places in America is just something we love doing. That said, many of them aren’t too far from airports.
If this is new to you, it can feel daunting to plan a trip to a National Park. I’ve included some helpful resources below, but I’d be glad to help. Maybe start with the ones nearest to home. Colorado is home to four National Parks (Rocky Mountain and Great Sand Dunes are two of our favorites, and only maybe 9-12 hours from Kansas City). If you’re willing to go a bit further, Utah has five and Wyoming and Montana have three. This will at least get you started!
If you’ve got young kids, I certainly understand the challenges, and you’ve got to figure out what works for you. Camping is a ton of work with little ones but even just letting them roam outside and play in the dirt has shown such positive effects for child development. Let your kids get dirty!
When it comes to hiking, we’ve found that the younger you start them, the better. Make sure you begin with realistic expectations, let them wander or lead from time to time, bring plenty of snacks, try to distract them with fun conversation or games (we used to pretend we were hiking through Middle Earth), maybe bring a toy (Eden still often hikes with a stuffed dog in a purse), and end with a reward (a special snack or time at a playground often does the trick).
Young and old, find your rhythm. Create new habits that fill you and restore you, and your soul will thank you for it.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota, 2017
4. Worship the Creator
Finally, remember to worship the Creator in all of this. Sadly, I am so tempted to worship creation that I have to continually remind myself of the One who made it. In the midst of these experiences, I might say a quick prayer of thanks or make a subtle reminder to our kids (and to myself). We might read a favorite psalm about God’s work through nature or simply acknowledge the presence of God together. God has made a good world, it is good for my soul, and I want to enjoy it with Him.
“Oh sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth! Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples! For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the LORD made the heavens. Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.”
Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska, 2018
Will you join me?
I know I’m a nerd, and I don’t expect anyone to embrace these things like our family has. Yet I am convinced this is more that just a hobby. It’s part of the way we were created to live and enjoy our Creator. These are His gifts to us and in them we find ourselves and glimpse our God.
I need more wonder in my life! In a world in which we strive to control everything, I need to see God’s handiwork. I need these moments of awe-filled transcendence. I need a little wildness. John Muir writes: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” (Our National Parks)
So will you join me? Even if you add just a tiny bit of nature back into your life, I am convinced your soul will thank you. I believe you’ll find a little peace, a little wonder, a little humility. You will learn who you are, see your God in fresh ways, and praise Him for His redemption. Nature is a spiritual discipline.
Denali National Park, Alaska, 2018
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If you’d like to explore these subjects in greater detail, or are just looking for a fun read, I recommend the following resources. Please take note, the majority of these authors write from a different worldview than my own, so like any book you read, do so with openness, but also a critical eye. Also, some of these books contain stories or language a bit on the gritty side, so use your own discretion.
The Nature Fix by Florence Williams
Interacting with the latest research and neurology, she argues that time in nature makes us happier, healthier, and more creative.
Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv
Slightly older, this book argues more anecdotally, directed with much greater focus on parenting and child development.
Families on Foot by Jennifer & Brew Davis
Great tips on how to make this part of your family rhythm, and how to encourage and train your kids to enjoy it as well.
The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
This book is too weird for most people, for it reads a bit like a love letter to trees (right up my alley). Yet, it’s fascinating learning how trees “think” and “communicate” and “plan” and “raise their young.” Short chapters and a very easy read.
Reforesting Faith by Matthew Sleeth
Perhaps the only book here written explicitly from a Christian perspective, but I’ve not read it yet. Released in April 2019, if this book is anything like his article in Christianity Today, I’m pretty excited.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
The tragic story of Chris McCandless (and many others) in their quest for nature. Also made into a movie.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
The sad but redemptive memoir of a broken woman seeking to find healing on the Pacific Crest Trail. Also made into a movie.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
A humorous account of one man’s attempt to hike portions of the Appalachian Trail. Includes lots of funny anecdotes and interesting observations. Also made into a movie.
Ranger Confidential by Andrea Lankford
This one is laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreakingly sad. A former National Park Ranger, Andrea retells true stories of her own experience and her colleagues in these incredible places.
The Overstory by Richard Powers
This one comes with a strong political agenda, but is actually a novel about a handful of characters and the ways trees have brought them together. You can definitely roll your eyes at me here.
Other fun adventure stories of note:
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2018
National Park and Adventure Planning
The National Parks: America’s Best Idea documentary by Ken Burns
One of the only documentaries I will rewatch. In classic Ken Burns fashion, great history with plenty of tugs at the heartstrings. Currently available on Amazon Prime (free with Prime membership), and it’s only 12 hours long!
Your Guide to the National Parks by Michael Joseph Oswald
Self-published but such great information, maps, hiking trails, etc. Surprisingly helpful.
National Geographic Guide to National Parks of the United States by National Geographic
Excellent pictures, historical details, and tips for travel.
The National Parks: An Illustrated History by Kim Heacox
This coffee table book is less helpful for planning details, but great on inspiring you with their incredible photos for where to go next.
Passport To Your National Parks
The ultimate nerd tool. You can get a stamp at every property within the National Park Service. There are 61 parks, but with national monuments, historical sites, shorelines, trails, preserves, battlefields, memorials, etc., that number is over 400. And you can get a stamp at each of them. I know, I already said I’m a nerd. Stop judging. You’re the one still reading! Besides, this tool does come with a handy map of all 400+ locations.
A great blog from a former park ranger who offers incredibly helpful tips for trip planning and adventures.
REI National Parks App
Free app that includes places you don’t want to miss (“gems”), great hikes with descriptions, family-friendly hikes, pictures, maps, and all kinds of details. This is great for planning, but also great on the trails. While I don’t love having my devices with me in a National Park, thankfully there’s almost never any service. With the REI app, the trail maps are downloaded to your phone and the GPS will work anywhere. This can be very helpful when you don’t know where you are!
Alltrails App and Website as well as the Hiking Project
Continually being updated, these are great ways to find tons of trails, see pictures, read reviews and descriptions as you plan your next adventure near or far.
Denali National Park, Alaska, 2018
What follows is Part 3 of a four-part blog on why “nature” is a spiritual discipline. Whether you love nature, have always been passive to it, afraid of it, or you just consider yourself a bit indoorsy, I am convinced from Scripture and theology, a variety of research disciplines, and personal experience that your soul and your life would be healthier and happier with a little more time spent outdoors.
If you missed Part 1 or 2, I’d highly recommend you start there, by clicking the links above. If you’re all caught up, here’s a reminder of the first four reasons, and then please continue by reading Part 3 below.
1. God made it good.
2. God made us for a Garden.
3. God is the original tree-hugger.
4. God lived here.
Nature is good for your soul! These first four reasons have been fairly broad, theological, and specifically about God’s interaction and love for the created world. The remaining reasons are much more about what creation does to us.
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5. Creation puts me in my place.
Creation puts me in my place. Indoors I feel in charge. I love technology as much as anybody, but at what point are we just building another Tower of Babel? With all our advancements (for which I’m thankful!), we humans feel like pretty big stuff. We live longer, are safer, and have greater access to information, resources, and delights than King Solomon himself (and remember what happened to him?).
Sometimes I forget I’m not God. If I have a question, I ask Siri. If I get lost, I ask Google. If I’m hungry, there’s Doordash. If I’m bored, I watch Netflix. If I have a flashing moment of need (or more likely want), Amazon can fix it in two days or less. There’s even Doctor On Demand! Who needs God when I’ve got my iPhone?
Big Bend National Park, Texas, 2018
Until I find myself in the wilderness. In a vast forest or before an endless canyon, all of a sudden I feel very small. Have you ever really seen the stars? I mean, really seen them—middle of nowhere, absolute darkness—seen them? I love how Bill Watterson captures this feeling.
Florence Williams writes in The Nature Fix: “The world is bigger than you, nature says. Get over yourself. At the very least, nature distracts us the way a parent might distract a whining toddler, by waving a favorite stuffed animal.”
One of my favorite books is Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, about Chris McCandless, the brilliant young man who abandoned society, went into complete solitude in Alaska, and tried to survive. Spoiler alert: Nature wins. As Krakauer retells this sad story, he unpacks this mysterious drive we have toward nature, the ridiculous arrogance with which we approach it, and the many ways nature continues to defeat us. Yes, it’s a bit dark, but so fascinating.
“Magic Bus” (from the movie Into the Wild), Healy, Alaska, 2018
And humbling. He’s right. We are so arrogant, but less so when we’re lost in the woods or staring down a bear! And more than that, when we’re struck with awe at the immensity of what God has made, it puts us in our rightful place.
I don’t know if you know this, but pastors deal with pride. A lot. Wow, that sermon was good. I’m something. Wow, look at all these new people at church. Good for me. Wow, look at those mountains…
Creation puts me in my place! Maybe I’m not as great as I thought I was! The Grand Canyon humbles me. An old forest humbles me. A flower. A three-toed sloth. My own body is incredibly humbling. And I need to be humbled. And the more time I spend out there, the more I’m reminded of what I need in here, and that is good for my soul.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, 2015
6. Creation gives me dignity
But you know what? Creation doesn’t just humiliate me, it gives me incredible dignity. Look at all He has made, yet, He loves me more. He puts us on the top of His list, for only we are made in His image, and we are not just called good, we are very good (Genesis 1:31).
The psalmist delights,
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet…” (Psalm 8:3–6)
Of all the things God made, He’s proudest of us. He’s got pictures of YOU hanging on His fridge. And we may know that cognitively, but when I survey everything else He has made? I cried when I stood before my first redwood. Some of them have been alive since Jesus. The tallest is 379 feet tall. I’m embarrassed to tell you, it was one of the most transcendent experiences of my life. And God thinks I’m more beautiful.
My First Redwood, Redwood National Park, California, 2018
We spent a day in Glacier Bay National Park. For the rest of my life, every beautiful landscape I ever see will be compared to Alaska. I cried there, too. God thinks YOU are more glorious.
Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska, 2018
Not only is there such inherent dignity in God’s declaration over us, there is such worth in His invitation to us. We are actually invited in to protect and improve on God’s creation. As I mentioned, He commands us to cultivate and keep (Genesis 2:15).
Does that shock anyone else? God makes this Garden and the entire created world, all its beauty and majesty, and then hands us the keys to see if we’d like to take it for a spin. More than that, He commands us to make it better—cultivate it. Take what I’ve given you, and I trust you to make it even better.
So yes, we build homes and roads; learn how to farm and cook and protect ourselves. To paraphrase Andy Crouch: God makes wheat but we make bread. Wheat is good. Bread is better. God makes grapes but we make wine. Grapes are good. Wine is better. The list goes on! There’s dignity for us in creation, for in our work we get to take what He has made, being careful not to exploit it or misuse it, and actually make it better. My soul needs that!
7. Creation reminds me who God is.
Even more importantly, creation reminds me who God is. And wow, He’s big, powerful, ordered, generous, bubbling with delight, and beautiful! Even though it is easy to be struck with awe at creation and forget the Creator, in a culture devoid of transcendence, these soul-aching moments point us toward more. I’ve often said to my children as we’ve seen the sun set or rise, isn’t God beautiful!—not just the sky but God Himself!
Rose Bushes, Olathe, Kansas, 2014
Ponder for a moment God’s hidden generosity, beauty, and delight. We used to have these amazing knock-out roses bushes (before this terrible virus killed them all…I’m still heartbroken). They were enormous, some of them in full-bloom had hundreds of flowers on a single bush.
Several of the bushes backed up near our fence or house, which meant literally hundreds of our roses were completely hidden from view. Unseen! What a waste, right? I called them “God’s roses,” for He was the only one who could enjoy them, and still He persists on making them.
I’ve often felt that way while hiking in some remote place. All these wildflowers that no one sees except me and God. Just us, yet He continues to make them. Think about all the places, all the animals and birds, all the flowers, each tiny snowflake that no one ever sees but God! What a beautiful, generous God, so overflowing with delight, that He creates them anyway. He enjoys them! That fills my soul with awe!
Gunnison National Forest, Oh Be Joyful Trail, Colorado, 2015
And awe changes us. The Nature Fix points out the power of awe, even from a materialistic perspective. “A deeply powerful, awe-inspiring experience can change someone’s perspective for a long time, even permanently.” Studies have shown “…that awe is a unique emotion that turns us away from narrow self-focus and toward the interests of our collective group.” Even compared to happiness, “…only awe [leads us] to feel less time-pressured, to report less impatience and to volunteer extra time to help others.”
Awe draws us out of ourselves and connects us with others. What’s the first thing you try to do when you see something truly stunning? I want to share it! Those moments at a national park as a family when all four of us are speechless (quite a feat for some of the Millers) bond us together better than words. We still reminisce about those moments and continue to flip through our many photo albums together. We are different because of them.
Have you ever seen a happier family? Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, 2018
And we get a glimpse of the divine. Certainly God is separate from His creation, yet His fingerprints are everywhere for those with eyes to see. There are few moments in my life where faith is more real to me and God’s presence more near, than in the presence of magnificent beauty with the people I love.
8. Creation is a good teacher.
And we learn something. Creation is a good teacher, yes, about God Himself, but also about myself, others, and His world.
Psalm 19 is one of my favorites, and certainly as a pastor, I’ve spent so much time thinking about God’s revelation to us through His Word. I love His Book. I’ve given my life to its study and proclamation, and nothing surpasses it. But that’s only one-half of that psalm. Why do we ignore the other half—the other way God speaks to us?
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. (Psalm 19:1–4)
Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park, 2017
As a preacher, I can’t help but be a little envious. This sermon translates into every language. Its message is found in every place. It’s been going since the beginning of time and knows no end.
So why don’t we listen more? We know we need to read our Bibles and go to church, and many of us do. These disciplines are absolutely core to my life, but that’s only half the psalm! Read your Bible, but don’t just read your Bible. Go on walk. Go to church, but after, maybe play outside. Go on a picnic. Listen to the other preacher. You and I need to hear from both.
Prairie Center, Olathe, Kansas, 2017
Jesus knew this. Look at the birds, He says. They’re preaching you a sermon with their songs. Look at the flowers. Do they look worried to you? You know God takes care of them, right? Don’t you think He’ll do that for you? (Matthew 6:25-34)
Those outside of faith recognize this as well. In his terrific book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv persuasively describes the developmental needs of children, and the ways in which nature is uniquely designed to meet those needs. We put our kids on the sports field or on the playground, which are good things, but if you really want them to learn how the world works, send them outside with no toys, no structure—just figure it out. Nature is an incredible teacher.
Nature also teaches us to slow down. It gives us space for solitude, self-reflection, and prayer. I love how Charles Spurgeon, the famous preacher from long ago, put it. “He who forgets [the awesomeness of nature] need not wonder if his heart forgets to sing and his soul grows heavy. A day’s breathing of fresh air upon the hills, or a few hours’ ramble in the beach woods’s umbrageous calm, would sweep the cobwebs out of the brain of scores of our toiling ministers who are now but half alive.”
It’s also a wonderful time to learn about another human. What’s to interrupt you on a walk? Sometimes what’s impossible to say face-to-face is so much easier shoulder-to-shoulder. Kelly and I have had some of our best conversations in the woods. Things we would have never found time or courage to say, come out here. I also know my kids better. Some of our deepest interactions and most lasting memories have been on a hike or unhurried around a campsite. Nature is a great teacher for my soul.
Big Bend National Park, Texas, 2018
Deep breath. I have to say. I’m pretty impressed! You’ve almost made it to the end of my list! I am proud of your tenacity, although by now, I hope you’re wondering if your time would have been better spent outside! It’s possible. Two more reasons before we get super practical.
9. Creation groans for good news.
Ninth, creation groans out for good news. Or at the very least, it helps us see how bad the bad news really is, and how desperate we are for redemption. No one says this better than Paul in Romans 8:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:19–23)
We groan and creation groans. When we chose self over God and sin over goodness, even the natural world was ripped apart. Can you hear it groaning? Every decay, every natural disaster, and every illness is a reminder of the mess we’ve made of our world. Forest fires and tsunamis, cancer and infertility, and ultimately death are all reminders that our world is not as it should be.
It reminds me how terrible my sin is. I don’t mean that my sin directly caused the last earthquake or anything like that. Yet, there is a real sense that our sin, beginning with Adam and continuing with me, is the reason for all this ugliness. Think about this. Adam’s rebellion against God (and I am counted with him, so mine, too) is so ugly that it caused tornadoes and rust and leukemia and deformity and all that is broken. If we hadn’t defamed God, those things would not exist. And we hear the groans.
One day, they will be eradicated along with my rebellion. Creation is groaning for redemption, just like I am. Its groaning is a reminder of my sin, my need for salvation, and highlights just how good the good news really is, for when it comes, the groaning will be turned to celebration. Even the mountains will sing and the trees will applaud.
Lassen Volcanic National Park, California, 2018
Look how Isaiah describes this:
For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the LORD, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah 55:12–13)
I think this is one of the reasons nature is such a good healer—it is also longing to be healed, and somehow we groan together. There’s so much being written on this right now, with mental health professionals literally writing a kind of “nature prescription” to victims of trauma, depression, anxiety, and I can tell you about it personally.
A couple years ago, I had one of my hardest years. I’ve always dealt with mild depression, but for a variety of reasons, this season was particularly tough. One of the greatest graces I received during that time—truly God’s gift to me—was a nearby park I didn’t even know existed, but which I stumbled upon.
That place became my sanctuary. I’d go at night or in the morning, after work or the middle of the day. Whenever I could. I even scheduled meetings there. My wife and I started having dates there. Family time was there. I probably hiked a hundred miles or more there that year. I’m not sure I would have made it without it. Grace.
John Muir writes, “Nature is always lovely, invincible, glad… All scars she heals, whether in rocks or water or sky or hearts.” Together we groan for the good news.
10. New Creation is our home.
Finally, nature is good for our souls because New Creation is our home. Sadly, when many Christians think of the afterlife we picture heaven, and we think of heaven as a place with wings, clouds, and harps. Or maybe you at least see a few mansions and streets of gold, but you still sort of picture us as glorified ghosts. Plus there’s this church service there that literally lasts forever. I’m a pastor. I love church services. But the pictures we often paint sound way more like the “other place,” don’t you think? Who wants to go there?
Not only are these images lame and undesirable, they’re untrue! Yes, after you die, if you’re a Christian, you go to heaven, up there somewhere, but the Bible could not be clearer: that place is only temporary. The Bible speaks way more about our final home, the New Creation, and nothing about this eternal destination sounds even remotely lame. It’s when heaven (the dwelling place of God) and earth (the dwelling place of humans) become one. Forever.
I imagine it a bit like a forest after a forest fire. (Stick with me on this metaphor—it’s going somewhere, I promise.) Forest fires are ugly and often tragic, ravaging acre upon acre with ferocious heat, destroying everything in its path. Feels like life, doesn’t it? So often, in a world so broken, we get burned and we carry those scars, and nowhere does God ever minimize our pain.
But after? In this burned-out forest, seeds that have slept dormant literally for centuries awaken. These seeds have been falling year after year, but have never seen the sunlight. The fire has opened the forest floor to the skies, and new life bursts forth in every direction. It can be absolutely spectacular. This is what God is doing with us, and even more.
Glacier National Park, Montana, 2017
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:1–5)
All that’s wrong or evil in our world and in us will be no more, and God will remake this planet, and He will live with us. This means we’ll have bodies, we’ll still work and laugh, there will be trees and flowers, and all that is beautiful and good. There’s good reason to believe there will be animals and food and wine and I’m pretty sure a little In-N-Out will make it in, as well as the Rocky Mountains. Why not? They’re good, aren’t they?
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2018
Remember, you were made for a Garden! And the dominant image of the afterlife is a Garden City, a physical reality where all the redeemed will dwell with God forever.
Think about right now, how good a sunset is, or Mount Rainier, or Yosemite Valley (still on my bucket list). Unbelievable beauty. Yet when God is finished remaking this world for us, consider the delight in store. Imagine the sunset without our brokenness. No distraction, hurry, idolatry, pain, or sin. Perhaps even colors that have yet to be seen with these failing eyes. It’s beautiful now—enjoy it—but it’s only an appetizer for what’s next.
Honeymoon Island State Park, Dunedin, Florida, 2017
And when we enjoy creation as an appetizer, it whets our appetite for our true home. When we enjoy the best of this world today, it should prepare us and excite us for an even better world tomorrow. If creation is this good now, what will New Creation be like! When I meditate on this, it is so good for my soul.
How do I get more nature in my life?
So what should we do about it? How do I get more nature in my life? And I know some of you are wrestling with the same question I have agonized over for so long. I live in Kansas City! Do I just need to move some place more beautiful?
No, you don’t, for there is beauty everywhere for those who want to see it, and it really doesn’t take that much work to begin enjoying more of the natural world.
In our final part, I’ll suggest four super practical tips to help you get started in getting more nature into your life today. This will include some local favorites, as well as some helpful (and/or fun) resources. You don’t want to miss those.
But until then, do you really need my help? Go outside!
What follows is Part 2 of a four-part blog on why “nature” is a spiritual discipline. Whether you love nature, have always been passive to it, afraid of it, or you just consider yourself a bit indoorsy, I am convinced from Scripture and theology, a variety of research disciplines, and personal experience that your soul and your life would be healthier and happier with a little more time spent outdoors.
If you missed Part 1, I highly recommend you start there, by clicking the link above. If you’re all caught up, please continue by reading Part 2 below.
Good for our souls
Why is nature so good for our souls? Well, today I’ve got ten reasons for you. Tomorrow it could be 40, but let’s start with ten. These reasons are all based first on Scripture and theology. I am still a pastor, after all, albeit a weird one. But I’ll also make my case using current scientific thinking, sociological research, and if all else fails, I’ll share a bit of personal experience. Once we get through these observations, I’ll offer some practical tips to help you get started, and conclude with some helpful (and/or fun) resources.
1. God made it good.
The first reason nature is good for your soul is because God made it good. We forget that sometimes. Our world is so broken, we’re often consumed with the ugliness around us. And there is a lot that is ugly, but at its core, God made it good and beautiful, and He made it for us.
Over and over in the creation account, as the material world springs forth from the mouth of God, He steps back to examine His artwork, “And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). If creation were a song, and the chorus sung by God Himself, the refrain would be, Wow, that’s good.
Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington, 2018
Somehow, we’ve lost sight of this. Many Christians have become so obsessed with the “spiritual” and the faulty thinking that the goal of Christianity is to escape planet Earth to one day float on the clouds (see reason #10 below) that we’re at risk of missing out on one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity. Not only is that untrue, but it’s unhelpful.
C.S. Lewis writes, “[God] likes matter. He invented it.” In the book Evangelical Convictions, published by our own denomination, the Evangelical Free Church of America, we read: “A proper understanding of God as the Creator changes our understanding of what it means to be spiritual, and it leads us away from an other-worldly asceticism that somehow denigrates our physical existence in this world. It tells us that salvation and spirituality are to be found not by fleeing from or avoiding the material realm, but by sanctifying it…We should delight in creation.”
Don’t forget this. God dreamed up trees. Mountains were His idea. So was your body. The goal of Christianity isn’t to escape these things, but to join God in bringing His redemption to them and to make them whole through Jesus. It’s not an accident that you are a physical being living in a physical world. It is good, given to you by God, and like all His good gifts, it is good for your soul.
2. God made us for a Garden.
But nature is not just good from afar or in theory. It’s good because God made us for it. Humans were made for a Garden and the Garden was made for humans. Eden is our true and rightful home, and we will not be happy until we return to it.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, 2017
In fact, our first job as humans is to take care of our Garden home. Isn’t that amazing? As soon as God makes us, He gives us a job. Look at the beautiful home I’ve given you, He says. Your job is to work it and keep it (Genesis 2:15). To work it—to bring the best out of it. Cultivate fields, prune the trees, make homes. Take what I’ve given you and make it better. And keep it—protect it, don’t exploit it, preserve its goodness and beauty. And enjoy it.
One of the best books I’ve read recently is The Nature Fix by Florence Williams (for a summary of some of her findings, click here). Published recently, she interacts with some of the best science and neurological studies to articulate what happens to our brains when we are in nature. There are piles of research that suggest that even small doses of being outside make you happier, healthier, more creative and energized, and that longer doses can be incredibly restorative in the midst of great stress and even trauma.
I’ve found this to be personally true. Take a simple hike for example. Not only do I receive the restorative effects of the natural world, but I get exercise and sunshine. I also get any one of three other essentials. If I’m alone, there’s little else I can do but think and pray, and we have never been more desperate for quiet self-reflection. If I’m with my wife Kelly, I get to connect relationally with my closest friend. If I’m with my kids, we get to bond together as a family without the standard distractions.
Fairbanks, Alaska, 2018
We’ve had family hikes where we all start in a lousy mood. We’re a normal family, by the way, and sometimes going on a hike is akin to eating our vegetables. We may not be in the mood for it, but we do it anyway because it’s good for us. More than once, even just a few minutes after starting, we’re laughing together. The Nature Fix explains why: the sights, smells, and sounds of nature do something magical to our brains.
Fascinated by both neurology and nature, I loved this book. But Williams and I have different worldviews. The prevailing theory is that nature is good for us because we evolved outside. That makes a lot of sense but with one fundamental change. Nature is good for us because we were created for a Garden. Again, to quote John Muir: “Going to the woods is going home, for I suppose we came from the woods originally.”
3. God is the original tree-hugger.
Third, it’s good for our souls because God is the original tree-hugger. Now, good grief, if anyone tries to get political on me here, I’m going to have to take an extra-long hike to regain my cool. I’m not talking about politics. But I am convinced, God is the first tree-hugger. It’s clear He loves trees and nature, and I could probably do a lot worse than trying to love what He loves.
Redwood National Park, California, 2018
If you’ve spent any time in the Bible, I hope you’ve noticed God’s obsession with trees. In a recent article in Christianity Today, “What Trees Teach Us about Life, Death, and the Resurrection,” Matthew Sleeth writes: “God Loves Trees. Other than people and God, trees are the most mentioned living thing in the Bible. There are trees in the first chapter of Genesis (v. 11–12), in the first psalm (Ps. 1:3), and on the last page of Revelation (22:2).”
Take, for example, the creation story. It’s obvious God created fruit trees to feed us, but is that all the author points out? “And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:9). It’s not just edible, or purely utilitarian, it’s beautiful.
Point Reyes National Seashore, California, 2018
Wisdom is a tree (Proverbs 3:18), God’s people are like a tree (Psalm 1, Jeremiah 17), a forest planted by God Himself, “…oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.” (Isaiah 61:3) The Bible begins and ends with a tree, and the very climax of our story takes place on a tree, with the greatest day in history, Resurrection Sunday, first celebrated in a garden. God is the original tree-hugger, and I want to be like Him. It’s good for my soul!
4. God lived here.
And God was not ashamed to live here with us. God lived here. Let that sink in. The God who made it all entered His own world. The One who gave us our bodies, wore one Himself. His feet squished mud between toes. He sought the shade of the trees, enjoyed the warmth of the same sun we feel, and as Sally Lloyd-Jones writes, he slept “under the stars that he made” (Song of the Stars: A Christmas Story). It’s amazing to think that when He was actually here, the redwoods were just saplings and the bristlecone pines were already middle-aged.
Jesus was here. He went on hikes with His disciples (ok, maybe they were journeys, but still), He sought solitude in the wilderness, showed His glory to His closest friends only after they’d summited a mountain together (and you might remember, Peter wanted so badly to go camping on that trip), and He spent His final night before the crucifixion in prayer in a garden. He taught regularly using birds, trees, flowers, and plants as illustrations.
Fairbanks, Alaska, 2018
If matter didn’t matter before this moment, it is forever sanctified by the God who made His home here with us. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Nature is good for your soul! These first four reasons have been fairly broad, theological, and specifically about God’s interaction with and love for the created world. The remaining reasons (coming soon in Part 3) are much more about what creation does to us. Here’s a sneak peak of where we’re headed next:
5. Creation puts me in my place.
6. Creation gives me dignity.
7. Creation reminds me who God is.
8. Creation is a good teacher.
9. Creation groans for good news.
10. New Creation is our home.
Just a reminder, if you hang with me, Part 4 will conclude with some super practical tips to help you get started in getting more nature into your life today. This will include some local favorites, as well as some helpful (and/or fun) resources. You don’t want to miss those.
But until then, watch the sunset, look at a tree, go for a walk. Get out there!
This blog is Part 1 in a four-part series.
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread,
places to play in and pray in,
where nature may heal and
give strength to body and soul.”
John Muir, 1912
God made this for me. I was in the woods, on a hike with my family, when this dawned on me. Our God is this big and this beautiful! He sang His world into existence for my joy and His glory. It was like I saw Him there, and basked in the warmth of His delight, never more confident of His presence and love. On a hike.
I can only call it transcendent.
Denali National Park, Alaska, 2018
We’ve lost transcendence, haven’t we? Our culture has tried desperately to run from it, yet we can’t quite seem to shake our longing for it. We search for it everywhere, yet somehow settle for puny things. Our devices. Mediocre distractions. Not unlike the people in Ancient Babel with their great tower, we are obsessed with what we have made. Things we can control, that make us feel big and god-like. We stay indoors where we think it’s safe, contained, manageable. We’ve lost touch with creation. And the Creator.
But we’re tired of it. We want more, and we cannot help but glimpse the hints of glory shining through. We are at the beginning of a slow and steady revolt against this infatuation with what we have made, and perhaps a return to what God has made. People are returning to the outdoors. They’re setting their devices aside (even if momentarily). National Park visits are up, and more is being published about humankind’s genuine need for nature. We’re leaning in to the transcendent.
As a follower of Jesus and a pastor, I believe this renewed desire should be embraced, celebrated, and even encouraged by God’s people. Because nature is a spiritual discipline.
“Nature” Is a Spiritual Discipline?
Is nature really a spiritual discipline? It sounds like a contradiction. For nature is by definition material, physical, concrete, and scientific. And the “spiritual”—isn’t that all the other stuff? The immaterial, the metaphysical, and the mysterious?
Perhaps. But nature is absolutely part of my own daily sanctification and growth in Christlikeness. I am a better husband and father, a better friend and pastor, a better follower of Jesus and a better human through my love for and engagement with the natural world.
Spiritual disciplines are the habits that form us into Christlikeness. Traditionally, this includes things like prayer, Scripture reading, solitude, fasting, serving, spending time in community, and more. I am a big believer in the traditional disciplines, and I give them primacy in my life.
Yet, I want to add a few more: hiking, watching the sunrise, camping, smelling a tree or flower, getting my hands dirty in the yard, sitting on a lake or a day at the beach, watching the stars, learning a bit more science, watching wildlife, visiting the zoo or park, climbing a mountain, playing in a stream, going on a picnic, or staring into an epic landscape.
These are things that enrich my soul and show me God like little else. I believe God is using nature to save my soul. Now before you assume I’m a heretic, let me explain why I feel this way. Why is nature so good for our souls?
I’m a nerd.
It’s only fair I let you in on a little secret. I am a nerd. For those of you who know me, or at least hear me preach on a regular basis, that’s no secret at all. You’ve known for years. For the rest of you, it’s only fair to tell you so you understand my bias.
Random Tree in the Middle of Town, Clearwater, Florida, 2017
A perfect day for me would be spent outside. I often have to stop to look at (and preferably touch, and occasionally smell) a tree. I’ve been known to even stop the car. My kids are used to me saying, hey, look at that tree! We recently visited the Redwoods, and it was life-changing. We literally had to stop the car every few yards and eventually got out and walked.
I just finished reading a book on The Hidden Life of Trees—how they “think” and “behave” and “communicate” and “raise their kids.” Seriously. If you ever can’t sleep, just call me and ask why I love trees so much. And don’t even get me started on mountains.
I also love the National Parks. The National Park Service is one of the best things our nation has ever done. I have stacks of books on them, I’ve watched documentaries, and I obsessively plan every family vacation around them. So far our family has visited 32 (of the 61). I could tell you which ones we’re going to visit in the next five years, and I could help you plan a trip to ones I’ve never even been to. My dream “retirement” would be working as a volunteer in any one of these magnificent places.
I spend my free time hiking year-round, alone or with my family (yes, there are great places to hike in Kansas and Missouri), playing or sitting outside. Winter does not stop us, and when it does happen to slow us down, I either plan the next trip, read books about adventurers or science, or watch nature shows with the kids (have you seen Planet Earth 2???).
Prairie Center, Olathe, Kansas, 2018
I can’t get enough of this stuff and I feel like you should know this about me if you’re going to keep reading. I recognize my bias, yet, no matter who you are—whether you’re a Christian or a skeptic, whether you love nature or have always been passive to it or afraid of it, or you just consider yourself a bit indoorsy—I am convinced that your soul and your life would be healthier and happier with a little more time spent outdoors.
Good for our souls
Why is nature so good for our souls? Well, today I’ve got ten reasons for you. Tomorrow it could be 40, but let’s start with ten. These reasons are all based first on Scripture and theology. I am still a pastor, after all, albeit a weird one. But I’ll also make my case using current scientific thinking, sociological research, and if all else fails, I’ll share a bit of personal experience.
As I mentioned, I could talk about this stuff for ages, which means I have way too much material to include it all here right now, so we’ve decided to release this post in sections. Congratulations, you’re almost done with Part 1!
Part 2 will center upon the first four reasons nature is so good for our souls, which are fairly broad, theological, and specifically about God’s interaction and love for His created world. Here’s a sneak peak:
- God made it good.
- God made us for a Garden.
- God is the original tree-hugger.
- God lived here.
In Part 3 we’ll go into the remaining six reasons, which specifically pertain to what nature does to us and for us. Again, a little teaser for what’s ahead:
- Creation puts me in my place.
- Creation gives me dignity.
- Creation reminds me who God is.
- Creation is a good teacher.
- Creation groans for good news.
- New Creation is our home.
Finally, in Part 4, I’ll conclude with some super practical tips to help you get started in getting more nature into your life today. This will include some local favorites, as well as some helpful (and/or fun) resources.
Until Part 2, what are you waiting for? Go outside!